Swiss voters poised to defend public media

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Geneva (AFP)

Swiss voters on Sunday look set to reject a proposal that would see public broadcasters lose taxpayer funding, following a campaign that stirred debate about the media's role in fostering national unity.

The "No Billag" initiative -- a reference to the Billag firm that collects the media licensing fee -- divided Switzerland on political and generational lines.

Led by the youth wing of the libertarian Free Democratic Party (PLR), No Billag's proponents sought to portray the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SSR) as an unfairly dominant and outdated relic.

SSR, which received about 1.2 billion Swiss francs from the license fee last year -- or three quarters of its budget -- delivers news in the country's four official languages: German, French, Italian and Romansch.

Many credit it for guaranteeing that all Swiss residents receive information of crucial public interest in all four languages, along with a range of opinion and analysis.

But No Billag's proponents argued that freeing taxpayers of the 451 Swiss francs ($477, 391 euros) annual fee would unlock new economic potential, create a more competitive media sector and ultimately foster more choice.

The license fee "doesn't work for our generation. It is too expensive and it funds a state system that we don't support", Nicolas Jutzet, a member of committee that initiated No Billag, told AFP.

The 23-year-old economics student at the University of St. Gallen was voicing a sentiment shared during the campaign by other millenials -- a generation that increasingly consumes media via the Internet rather than radio or broadcast networks.

Jutzet argued that people should pay subscription fees only for things that they actually want to consume.

"We choose other things -- our food, our clothes -- why should it be any different with media", said 20-year-old law student, Louise Morand, a Geneva-based member of the No Billag organising committee.

Switzerland's largest party, the nationalist and anti-migrant Swiss Peoples Party (UDC), threw its support behind the initiative.

- Strong pushback -

Sunday's poll is part of Switzerland's direct democracy system, where proposed initiatives face a national vote four times a year.

The campaigns are often muted in politically tepid Switzerland, but sometimes -- as with No Billag -- temperatures rise.

A broad political coalition along with prominent athletes, filmmakers and even the chief executive of top Swiss bank UBS, Sergio Ermotti, came out in defence of public media.

The mobilisation was "exceptional" for Switzerland, said University of Geneva political scientist Pascal Sciarini, who noted that apathy is often the only clear winner during national votes.

The mobilisation appears to have been successful, with final polls before the vote indicating two-thirds support against the proposal.

The committee formed to fight No Billag underscored the dangers of a fully profit-driven media environment in multilingual Switzerland.

It warned that with a substantial majority of the country's wealth concentrated in German-speaking areas, programming will increasingly skew to that audience.

The committee called the measure "an attack" against the French speaking Suisse Romande region and warned that programming for the Italian minority would inevitably be hurt.

A spokesman for the public broadcaster, Daniel Steiner, told AFP that a "yes" vote would force SSR to shut down and that it would be "impossible" to ensure public interest broadcasting in four languages moving forward.